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At USC Fisher, “The Collecting Continues”

The University of Southern California is home to the first art-only museum in Los Angeles proper. That’s the USC Fisher Museum of Art, now showcasing its permanent collection in “The Collecting Continues 1939-2013.”

Elizabeth Holmes Fisher, “a conservative, midwestern Christian woman of modest means,” began collecting art in 1928, enabled by her husband’s successful speculation in Long Beach oil wells. Fisher established her self-named museum barely a decade later, in 1939. “If Los Angeles is to build up her collection of art treasures, now is the time,” she said. Fisher assembled 17th-century paintings, British portraits, and landscapes of the Hudson River and Barbizon schools. As USC’s first female trustee she established her museum at USC in the hope that it would encourage further donations. Fisher’s museum had three modest rooms, and so it does today.

In 1949 Armand Hammer donated 49 European paintings, most iffy in the extreme. His gift included Rubens’ Venus Wounded by a Thorn (at top). Dated c. 1608-10, it’s likely to be entirely by Rubens’ hand.

The Fisher (and especially the Hammer) collection has long inspired skepticism. There were so many ambitious attributions, so far from the centers of Euro-American connoisseurship. The selection in “The Collecting Continues” demonstrates that many of attributions have stuck. It has representative landscapes by Claude and van Ruisdael; Thomas Cole and Asher Durand. More of the still-accredited big names are from Fisher than Hammer.

In the mid 1980s Hammer asked USC if he could borrow a few of the paintings he donated, including Venus. The full-figured goddess was delivered to Hammer, and she became a principal ornament of the Occidental Petroleum executive suite. That temporary loan became less temporary than USC had intended. Hammer ignored repeated requests to return the painting. USC threatened legal action, and Hammer threatened a countersuit against USC—on grounds that must have been clearer to him than to the rest of us mortals. Not until 1991, a year after Hammer’s death, was the Venus returned to USC Fisher.

Besides the Rubens Venus, a standout of the show is a big Asher Durand, Kaaterskill Clove (1850). It looks to be in perfect condition. For what it’s worth, Durand’s Kindred Spirits, a smaller painting that also shows Kaaterskill Clove, was sold to Alice Walton for a gazillion dollars.

No less intriguing is a very early (1826) Thomas Cole, The Woodchopper, Lake Feathersonhaugh. The weirdness of Cole’s late allegories is prefigured in a gnarled tree against pink twilight.

Given the limitations of space, today’s USC Fisher Museum is primarily a contemporary kunsthalle. “The Collecting Continues” debuts some recently acquired works, but it doesn’t attempt to survey the contemporary collection, relatively strong in L.A. and Latino artists.

Actually, the Fisher’s best contemporary piece is on permanent display. It’s Jenny Holzer’s Blacklist, an installation of inscribed benches and steps in a small garden outside. Drew Weinbrenner, a USC undergraduate, found fellow screenwriting students woefully ignorant of the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. He proposed a public artwork on that theme. That might sound like a recipe for worthy dullness, but Holzer created an exemplar of public art. The likes of Hedda Hopper and Sam Goldwyn supplied the anti-truisms, and truly, you can’t make this stuff up.